The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? McMurray Vs Mears, The Woods Shedding Tears, And More by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday March 19, 2008

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Did You Notice? … There's a difference between the problems faced by Casey Mears and Jamie McMurray, both of whom have had disastrous seasons. Mears' issues have been partially based on overaggression. He crashed at Daytona making the wrong move at the wrong time going for the lead, then again at Bristol when he smashed into leader Denny Hamlin while trying to get his lap back. How much can you fault a driver for going overboard, giving it all he's got? Then again, is three wrecks in five weeks too much? That's the question for Hendrick moving forward.

On the other hand, McMurray's barely had a sniff of the Top 20 all season long, with a program that's now in its third season. The car he's driving has led two laps; his teammates have combined to lead 275. In the past, Roush Fenway has made crew chief changes to fix the problems within McMurray's program; now, McMurray is with a team he's handpicked. Of course, things couldn't be more different in Mears' case; it's his first season with a "new" team after being moved over to make room for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Those things take time to gel.

When you look at things from that perspective, to me McMurray is the one on much thinner ice.

Did You Notice? … That while Regan Smith has struggled after being directly separated from Mark Martin's tutelage and support, Aric Almirola has shined. After sitting on the sidelines for the first four races this season, Almrola finished 8th at Bristol to give the No. 8 car its best finish of 2008 - beating any of Martin's performances to date.

In the meantime, Smith - in charge of his own ride at the DEI stable - has seen his team fall outside the Top 35 in points after a 26th place performance at Bristol. If there's any doubt as to how valuable sharing a ride with a veteran like Mark Martin can be - even though it means you run part-time - just look at these stats. Of course, Smith can certainly still turn to Martin for support; they're on the same team. But sharing a ride with a mentor and having one next door are two different things; and right now, Smith is looking like he needed at least another year of tender lovin' care.

On a side note, I wonder if it's good for a guy like Doug Richert - admittedly "old school" - to work with a rookie like Smith. Not only is there the generation gap in play, but Richert is a guy who's used to immediate success; after all, he won a title with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in just his second year driving the Cup Series. Smith is more of a long-term project… can Richert both adapt and develop that long-term mentality? Based on what I've seen and heard to date, I don't quite know if that's happening.

Did You Notice? … That when it rains, it pours … literally. I mention this misstep because the Woods said it was a mutual decision for Elliott to switch off and do the race at Martinsville instead of Bristol. We all know the fallout from that; Jeff Green was hired to sub, but when qualifying didn't happen, the No. 21 missed the race because they were too low in owner points (of course, if Elliott were there, rainout rules would have put the 1988 champion automatically in the starting field). Now, the Woods are in even more serious trouble.

Here's the issue. I don't know about you, but I'm a big forecasting buff … and the weather at Bristol consistently said "rain" for about five days last week. Now, if you're a team like the Wood Brothers, and you're behind the eight ball - knowing you have to make races in order to jump inside the Top 35 - why in the world would you let Bill Elliott switch his Bristol date to drive when it's a guaranteed spot in the field for your car if qualifying gets rained out? Why would they even take the chance that rain would knock you out? Shouldn't someone be looking at the weather each morning? It's these types of common sense decisions that start leading programs to their demise.

Let me throw something else out there; right now, there are just 46 full-time teams competing, with one of those cars the vastly underfunded Front Row Motorsports operation - and heading to Martinsville, there are three rookies driving for cars outside the Top 35. Racing at a track with a low car count - and one that's consistently tough on rookies - why in the world would you need Elliott to race there? I still don't get it. In my view, this team voluntarily shot themselves in the foot.

With Dale Jarrett's retirement, there are no longer any full-time drivers over the age of 50 and the 40+ plus group is shrinking as well.

Did You Notice? … That with the retirement of Dale Jarrett, as of Martinsville there will not be a single driver over 50 who's made every race this season. In fact, just three 50-somethings remain on the docket overall : 52-year-old Ken Schrader (driving for single car BAM Racing), 52-year-old Bill Elliott (part-time), and 50-year-old Mike Skinner (temporary fill-in for A.J. Allmendinger). Let's even take this one step further; right now, there's just two 40-somethings in the Top 25 in Cup points - Jeff Burton (40) and Bobby Labonte (43).

Need any more proof as to how NASCAR's become a sport for the young? Somewhere, Harry Gant's holding a day of mourning.

Did You Notice? … The high quality of drivers outside of the Top 12 in Cup points? This week, it's particularly important, because as we've mentioned before here on DYN, history tells us 76% of those in Chase spots five races in wind up making the postseason field.

That means that, barring some statistical anomaly, nine of the following twelve men will be punching a Chase ticket: Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Martin Truex, Jr.

No question, that's one solid group; but check out the four drivers immediately behind them, veterans that will try to push their way in during the coming months:

Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards.

Those are four men from arguably the three most powerful organizations in the sport this decade; and yet, one will likely be locked out of the playoffs if history is our guide. Right now, that man looks to be Hamlin; with the sour luck from his 2007 Chase continuing into this season, the No. 11 car has already been involved in two wrecks and a fuel pickup problem. Considering his teammates have already left him a distant third, it seems like Hamlin's going to have a much tougher time making up the gap than the others on this list. You'd have to assume Hendrick will get themselves together … right?

Did You Notice? … That with the release of Johnny Sauter after just five races, the Phoenix Racing Nationwide Series program will once again fail to keep a driver for more than one full season? The last time the team had any sort of consistency year-to-year was with Jimmy Spencer, who drove the Yellow Transportation-sponsored car during 2001 and 2002. For a team that's had multiple crew chief switches, as well, you wonder whether any driver can turn around that program.

Did You Notice? … That of the 35 cars locked in to qualifying at Martinsville, just two of them are single car teams. Of the 11 full-time cars not locked in to qualifying at Martinsville, five of them are single car teams.

At this point, it appears "extinction" for the one-car program isn't a matter of if … it's a matter of when.

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Fran Donaway
03/19/2008 08:29 AM
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Tom – Perhaps you missed it, but Casey was NOT racing to get his lap back. He was hit by Denny who was hit by Juan who WAS racing to get his lap back. That wreck had nothing whatsover to do with Casey except for the fact that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

scottb
03/19/2008 11:58 AM
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In regard to the Wood Brothers issue, I wonder if they were taking into consideration that Dale Jarrett would be running at Bristol but not at Martinsville, as DJ’s championship is more recent and trumps Bill’s if both drivers fail to qualify on speed. Whatever the reasoning, it certainly dug them an even deeper hole than they were already in.

Fran
03/19/2008 12:27 PM
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I don’t know what the exact limit is, but a past champion has to be on the books some number of days ahead of time (> one week if I remember correctly).

Margo L
03/19/2008 12:47 PM
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I defy anyone to explain a rationale for the Wood Brothers having to miss any races at all because of the top 35 rule . One of the great teams in the history of racing having to sit out races , and waste time on inventive ways to qualify , instead of being allowed to simply race . NASCAR owes a huge debt to teams like the Woods . They, and teams like them, built NASCAR . People like Brian only inherited the the fruits of their efforts . The top 35 rule was created by the rocket scientist minds at NASCAR for one purpose . So that no major sponsor would have their feelings hurt by having to go home when their team failed to qualify . It also has a lot to do with future franchise ideas .
I for one have had enough of the NASCAR/ISC greed and stupidity determining the content of the races .If the sponsors don’t understand that auto racing is a competition and not a guarantee , then they should find a venue that doesn’t require being faster or better than the next guy. The top 35 idea only serves a small handfull of sponsors ,and some of the biggest teams , and of course ensures a constant flow of money from happy sponsors into the dozens of France bank accounts . The top 35 rule has to end . And when the builders and founding heros of the sport are forced out because of this ridiculous and completely uneeded rule , only the handfull of people will benefit , and thats not right .

Mike
03/19/2008 03:15 PM
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With the good finish by Aric Almirola , maybe the problem with the 8 car was JR. and not the car . Truth is , Aric has shown great talent for a long time on the short tracks , just needed the big break . And as we all remember he was just as fast in the Busch race last year until having to give up his seat to Hamlin halfway through the race . I think we’ll hear a lot more from him in the future .

Managing Editor
03/19/2008 03:17 PM
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To: Fran D.

Thanks for your insightful comments. What you say is true … but at the same time, Mears was racing Montoya to get the Lucky Dog pass. At that point, the caution was imminent, but he didn’t slow down … even though passing Montoya was a longshot, at best. He was still going at full speed, hoping he’d get lucky and Montoya would slow down too much when the yellow flag came out. Instead, Montoya hit Hamlin, Hamlin hit Mears, and we know what happened from there. But if Mears had slowed for the yellow, the wall damage wouldn’t have been so severe. He had to go behind the wall for repairs because of the speed at which he HIT the wall.

In one sense, you can’t fault Mears for not slowing down. Every racer has a competitive desire to finish as high as possible, and the Lucky Dog at the time could have proved critical to seriously helping Mears’ finish. Sometimes, though, that aggression comes back to bite you … and it did in this case.

sandy
03/19/2008 04:04 PM
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I think in your over 40 group you forgot Mikey W.

Ron
03/19/2008 05:52 PM
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Definitely one of the saddest stories this year has to be the troubles of the lengendary Woods Brothers. A solution to their problem would be to merge with another legendary but unsponsored, Yates Ford team. This would allow them to put their sponsor onto cars guaranteed to be in the field. With terrible start of the #21 car this year it is pretty unlikely that they will break into the top 35 and how long will their sponsors stay aboard?

Big Henry
03/19/2008 11:09 PM
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The Woods are racing history. Let them take their place in it and leave the sport with some grace. Life moves on.

Mike
03/20/2008 09:57 AM
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Not to sound like the Emperor from Star Wars…But Wood Brothers, “You will pay the price for your lack of vision!”

They have no one to blame but themselves for all but falling out of Nascar completely and becoming irrelevant. Way before the top 35 rule was ever instituted and back when they were a STRONG team, right before their very eyes they saw the sea change taking place in Nascar from single car teams to multicar behemoths. The fact that they refused to even try to ever become a multicar team (or if they did, which I do not recall, there is no reason for them to fail)was their Waterloo. All those years they could have easily had a second or a third car making rcaes under the old system so that when the top 35 rule hit, they would have been secure.

But they chose to go old school route, and in todays Nascar, just ask MMR what it is like sticking to your guns and refusing to adjust and evolve.

Mark
03/20/2008 05:41 PM
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Mike , if only the Woods had known that the answer to every problem was to spend millions of dollars they didn’t have so they would have
“ evolved “ . You obviously don’t have a grasp of how much money , man power , and technology it takes to add on to an existing team . If you would be kind enough to give the name and phone number of the sponsor or sponsors who would pay for this expansion , i’m sure the Woods will happily contact them .

Mike
03/21/2008 09:51 AM
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Mark, I never said it was easy, and I am no tsaying they should be doing this NOW, but the Wood Bros had only what… DECADES to figure it out and already be a multicar team WAY before this top 35 rule came into effect? And back in the early 2000’s and late 90’s, though still expensive, the cost of a full time sponsor was nowhere near what it is now. They should have made it happen and they didn’t. They have earned it and deserve to suck now and fall into Nascar obscurity.

 

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